Where did the Catalans come from?

Tracing the roots of any culture is a tough task, especially trying to represent a cultural group as accurately as possible without writing a novel on the topic. The history of Catalonia dates back to the middle ages, but don’t worry; I won’t bore you with a history lesson. All you need to know is that since the XIII Century (some claim it’s the XI Century when the first ruler emerged) Catalonia has had its own rights and parliament, which may explain why to this day the Catalan’s have such a strong cultural identity and desire to preserve it.

Connection to Catalonia

Now, why in the world would a Canadian (that’s me!) have any interest in the topic of Catalan culture, other than for the fact she’s living in Barcelona and is simply curious about its origins like the rest of us? I have a few motives for why I am choosing to unravel the roots of the Catalan culture (or rather, scratch the surface). The first is the most obvious, and the same reason many have. That is to gain a more in-depth knowledge to understand and appreciate the unique culture of the Catalans to the fullest.

The second reason for my Catalan cultural exploration is more personal. From the first moment I experienced the vibrancy of this region, I felt an instant connection to it. Catalonia left a strong impression on me. There was always something unique about the way people gathered and celebrated local events. No matter how many times I watch a Correfoc (Public Pyrotechnic Display) or observe the Castellers (Human Towers), I am continually amazed at how the Catalans congregate in masses towards a common goal.

correfoc catalunya catalan culture

To an outsider, their traditions may seem like nothing more than some crazy Catalans gathering together. However, by tracing the roots of the Catalan culture, you begin to understand just how deep their cultural ties run and how these somewhat strange traditions are grounded with historical significance. Along with traditional ties that help understand their cultural identity, the language, arts, and cuisine of Catalonia also play a significant role.

Correfoc Fire Running Evening From Barcelona

Catalan Culture in Catalonia

I’ve never lived in a place with such a deeply rooted cultural history. Daily, individuals are standing up in support of the preservation of their culture even though the forces fighting against its survival are strong. I’ve often asked myself, from where this strong sense of identity exactly originated.

‘Was there one extremely crucial point in the development of the Catalan culture or were there a series of events which have made up the Catalan culture as we know it today’?

There are countless aspects of the topic that fascinate me, and it’s why I am choosing to shed light on this. The conflicting views of identity amongst the Catalan people (mostly regarding language and tradition) are in many people’s opinion, the main root of the ongoing dispute for independence. Economics, Taxes, Pride, and Dignity all play a role. However, I’ve chosen to touch on the broader aspects. These are the ones at the core of their being, and which connect the Catalan people to a common cause; that is their cultural identity.

Catalan People

The universal identity of the Catalan people can be characterized by innovation, creativity, hard-working nature, and quirky humor. Their unofficial national symbol says it all. Some places have eagles, Canada has the beaver and maple leaf. In Catalonia, well, they have a Burro (donkey). The burro stands to represent two main aspects of the Catalan identity. First, the symbol describes their dedicated nature and hard work ethic, and second, their cheeky poke at the Spanish, who use the bull as one of their symbols. It’s worth noting, the Catalan’s are quite light-hearted and don’t take themselves too seriously.

Silly symbols and shenanigans aside, Catalonia has been through a lot, well which part of the world hasn’t really. There is not one single event that shaped the cultural identity of Catalonia, instead, there are a series of events that came to define the culture we know today. Language and traditions have held strong. Even the typical food eaten in Catalonia tells a story about their rich past.

Historical tidbit: The Moors hadn’t fully made it to the North of Spain, and because of this, many of the advanced irrigation methods and technologies also never arrived in Catalonia. Many people say this is possibly why the Catalan’s are so resourceful and have a strong work ethic.

Catalan Language & Cultural Roots

It’s debatable whether Catalonia has ever been its own nation, but one fact is that the language has always existed alongside its people. We can trace the roots of the language to the colonization of Tarragona by the Romans. There are two converging theories on the language. One is that it began from a combination of a vulgar form of Latin spoken at the time, plus some Arabic. The second is that Catalan evolved from Provença and a mix of French that was spoken at the time. These two languages created Occitan which later supposedly developed into Catalan. Over 9 million people speak six main dialects (Valencian, Rousellanese, Northern Catalan, Central Catalan, Balearic, and Alguerse) of Catalan today.

To a foreigner, Catalan sounds like a mix of French, Spanish, and Italian. I often joke with Catalan friends that if you chop off the last letter of a Spanish word, you have Catalan. Well, let me tell you, I’ve learned that this isn’t the case. Catalan is its own language, not a dialect of Spanish at all.

Autonomy

I mentioned that Catalonia has come up against a lot over the years; the freedom of the language is no exception. During the war of Spanish succession (1701-1714), Catalonia lost its autonomy, and its constitution dissolved. This event resulted in a significant decline in the Catalan culture.

Historical Tidbit: During the Industrial Revolution, more money had been generated, a new class emerged, and the culture had a massive overhaul. Cultural institutions popped up, and events in the Catalan language took place everywhere. One such example is the Jocs Florals (The Floral games), where Catalan poets performed their works. The Floral games are still celebrated today although, payment to see the games are no longer made in flowers.

The Catalan language appeared to be strong and thriving once again, that was until the Franco dictatorship came into power in 1939.

How was language affected?

Well, as you’d expect, it was banned. You wouldn’t dare be caught speaking Catalan. Let’s just say; you’d get more than a slap on the wrist, your life could very well be at risk. Laws were so extreme that during the reign of Franco, newborns couldn’t even be given Catalan names. Luckily, following the end of Franco’s time in power, Catalonia returned to observe a higher level of freedom than before. Things began to flourish once again, the arts included.

Friendly Factoid: Around the XII Century, the first evidence of Catalan language was discovered in the “Homilies d’Organyà,” one of Catalonia’s historical texts.

Funny Phrases: There’s an old saying that goes something like “all fish in the Mediterranean speaks Catalan.” Some versions refer to Aragonese instead of Catalan. The common saying refers to when Aragon was a respectable empire and massive traders among the Mediterranean civilizations.  As one of my colleagues says, “Trading and making money is kind of a thing in our culture.” Even nowadays, Catalonia is the region in Spain with the most exports and imports.

Arts

Now, I won’t go too much into this, but I couldn’t mention Catalan culture without giving recognition to a great master of Catalan Modernism art, Antoni Gaudí. If you’re reading this, you most likely know who I’m speaking about right now. Short in height, bushy beard, unassuming and modest. Alright, well that’s maybe not the best way to describe him, but it paints an initial picture for you at least. Gaudí. was a true master of his craft, and not only that, he stood firmly for the preservation of the Catalan culture. He was also a solid protector of Catalan modernism.

casa battlo gaudi

If you have the chance to visit Barcelona, you must book a tour of Gaudí’s main masterpiece. Due to the popularity of the architectural wonder, it’s best to book skip-the-line Sagrada Familia tickets well in advance. Gaudí’s works aside, you can also visit the George Orwell square (commonly referred to as trippy square). After the Civil War, the famous writer came out with a work called  “Homage to Catalonia.” If you’re a fan of his writing, this is a must read!

Sagrada Familia Skip-the-Line Guided Tour

Catalan Traditions

There are more wacky traditions in Catalonia than I can keep track of, and I love them all! If you’ve never been to the region, get your butt here. Also, remember, that no matter what time of the year you come, there’s always something exciting happening. Without some knowledge of the most deeply rooted traditions, it’s difficult to understand the roots of the Catalan Culture fully. Let me share with you a snippet on the origins of the most significant of all the Catalan traditions.

Correfoc

correfoc celebrationFire, pitchforks, and dancing devils; this pretty much sums up what Correfoc is. The direct translation is “fire-run,”. Correfoc is one of the wackiest traditions I’ve ever experienced. The pyrotechnic spectacular is said to have originated out of the Ball de Diables (Devil Dances). The medieval theatrical performances were a re-creation of a duel between Evil and Good. Street theatre performances like this typically appeared during festival days that fell in the religious calendar. After the death of General Franco, much of the traditional folklore and heritage underwent another revival and consolidation.

Castellers

It’s the perfect display of trust, strength, oneness and the most unusual form of cultural manifestation across Europe. Well, at least that’s how I see it. If you’re not familiar with Castellers, it’s basically a massive human tower. Although impressive, comprising of up to 10 levels, on average 100-200 people, and up to 10 meters tall, what’s even more unique is what it represents.

The first documentation of the tradition of Castellers dates back to around 1801. Popular at nationalist celebrations, Castellers evolved from Ball de Valencians, a folk dance that typically ended once a human figure was raised. As years past, the final figure grew in importance. The taller you could make your figure, the more you would outdo the other groups. The final figures eventually became their own performance, and hence why we have Castellers today. Other theories on its origins are in circulation, but this one appears to hold the most weight.

What’s so fascinating about Castellers? If you’re asking this question, I’m guessing you haven’t yet witnessed the spectacular yourself. Let me say, the first time you watch them, you may even feel yourself sweating with a bit of anxiety. Even as a spectator, it’s a bit nerve-wracking, especially when the final tier is built. The tower is completed by a small child who climbs all the tiers until they arrive at the top. The tradition, which has received UNESCO Status in 2010, is a must see!

La Sardana

The most famous typical dance of Catalonia, La Sardana, links in with Catalan nationalism. I won’t get into that here, but know, dances like La Sardana, or music like the Catalan rumba, have strong roots in the Catalan culture.

Are you traveling to Spain in the Fall/Winter Season?

Check out the following festival days for an insight into the roots of the local culture.

  • September 11th: Every year, Catalonia celebrates, La Diada (National Day of Catalonia). On this day in 1714, the Catalan troops were defeated by the forces of King Philip V. Ever since, on September 11th, Catalan’s join together in support of their rights and freedom.
  • September 24th:  The week-long festival of La Merce, which celebrates the Patron Saint Lady of Merci) floods Barcelona with cultural vibrancy. You can watch, the Ball of the giants (Les Gegantes), Fire parades (Correfoc), and Castellers, all over the city.

Catalan Food

There’s no shortage of delicious Catalan specialties. Some examples include Escudella (typical soup), Botifarra (traditional sausage), and Calçots (bbq spring onions). Catalonia has no shortage of tasty treats. One of my favorites is called “pa amb tomàquet.” The literal translation is bread with tomato. The popular item is a staple here in Catalonia. You can eat it for breakfast, as a tapa or for merienda (mid-evening snack) with or without a slice of jamón, and/or cheese.

catalan traditional food

The Catalans themselves often joke that “pa amb tomàquet” came about as a way to save money by using the leftover bread from the day before. Considering Catalans are usually tight with their money (not my words, that’s coming straight from the lips of many locals), this would make sense. As merchants, the Catalan people were always managing money, skimping and saving wherever they could. Their clever ways of money management have carried through into today.

Barcelona: 4-Hour Foodies Market Tour

Preserving the Catalan Culture

Throughout history, there were many influential individuals and self-organized groups fighting against the preservation of the Catalan culture. Although there are still many opposing factors none are stronger than the opposition against the independence movement.

Politics aside, I’m not here to close off with a political debate. Frankly, not having lived here my whole life, my vision of the big picture is not as broad as someone who was born here. My aim in unraveling the roots of the Catalan Culture was to expand your knowledge of the importance and significance of it so that you could gain a deeper appreciation for the culture of this incredible region. Catalonia has been my adopted home for the past few years, and I adore it the same way I love my place of birth.

Maybe you haven’t ever visited Catalonia, are traveling through, an expat living here or you’re originally from Catalonia. Whatever your situation is, I’m sure we all can agree on one thing. There are many layers to the Catalan culture. It is the diversity and vibrancy of the culture of Catalonia that initially captivated me, and it is what continues to hold my attention. I do not doubt the strong sense of culture here, and after experiencing it, I now understand more about the universal driving forces behind why there is such a strong desire to preserve it.

HAVE YOU LEARNED ANYTHING NEW WITH CATALAN CULTURE?


Written By: Tanya Lesiuk

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